Guest blog by David. K. Slide, Head of Languages, Bristol.
It’s 10am on a dull Tuesday morning. Period 2. Year 8 has entered the classroom. 30 pupils. As I close the door I am overcome with a sense of freedom. Free from data, free from book reviews, free from politics. The hustle and bustle of the corridors has now passed and I’m free to do what I do best.
Free to smile, free to laugh, free to sing and free to open Pandora’s box. Yet today Pandora’s box isn’t merely full of props. It is crammed full of characters allowing my 30 linguists to adopt a different persona. To take a step out of reality and delve into a world of mystery and creativity……… all in a foreign language! That is why I chose this career!
For two hours a week Year 8 is transported into a different culture where the world becomes a smaller place. Where English is the second language and, the possibility of lifelong learning never ends. As the reggaetón (Latin music derived from reggae) is playing in the background I prepare the lesson’s first speaking activity. ‘Tres, dos, uno, vamos……’. We begin.
My linguists are engaged! A cloud of enthusiasm fills the air as the decibels start to rise. The joy of learning is palpable and the application of knowledge is the perfect platform to showcase their skills. I play the role of orchestra conductor; gently increasing the volume of the Spanish-rich conversations until the crescendo disrupts the silent-reading class opposite. I am greeted with the teacher’s glacial look as I immediately gesticulate my apology.
As I monitor the group, the lump at the back of my throat begins to grow. Emotion almost takes over, yet I manage to keep my exterior calm. I am bursting at the seams with glee. ‘They started with nothing, now look at them!’ I proudly say to myself.
For many pupils, speaking in the target language is an exercise in facing fears. Some pupils have difficulty speaking publicly in English; the same activity in a foreign language requires veering out of their comfort zone. The emotional roller coaster peaks and troughs as the palms sweat, the heart beats faster and faster and the breaths get shorter and shorter.
My role of conductor organically takes another form, that of psychologist and coach. Guiding pupils to work through the sweaty palms, to calm the heart beats, to elongate the breaths and to produce what I believe they can. They always do! Each time better than the last; each accent stronger, each sentence longer. Even when all eyes are looking, they deliver! Triumphing in the face of fear! Most importantly, my linguists are learning whilst having fun.
To reach that point takes an investment in time. It takes time to develop a relationship with a class. Time to trust. Time to feel comfortable to make errors. The teacher’s pendulum must swing from IQ to EI (emotional intelligence). Now is the time to focus on communication over accuracy. Searching for the positives. Praise is a powerful tool!
Speaking a foreign language is a life-skill, mastered by few but respected by many. Those who have endured the rigours of language learning, and are competent, are quick to highlight the benefits. A second language exposes practitioners to new and exciting pathways rich in traditions, music and food. Opening doors to new cultures, breaking-down cultural barriers and ultimately making the world a smaller place!
The current MFL landscape is rife with uncertainty. Despite the government’s ambition to see 90% of pupils choose the Ebacc combination (Maths, English, sciences, a language and history or geography), recruitment in MFL remains eclipsed by its Ebacc counterparts. The impact from Brexit and the tightening of state school budgets has not helped to raise the profile of MFL in recent years. The latter leading to many schools waving ‘Adiós’ to the once treasured foreign language assistant. Added to this a change in specification has resulted in many MFL Heads of Department fearing the unknown and anticipating a drop in forthcoming GCSE results. In the face of these obstacles, MFL remains a staple in the National Curriculum.
MFL teachers have a tough task to change the direction of the current language-learning climate. Now more than ever it is vital to raise the profile of languages in our schools, recruit more pupils to GCSE and ultimately to produce more competent linguists. For language teachers the classroom is their sanctuary. Where the lesson flow takes over and the sense of purpose is realised.
In spite of the challenges that our subject faces we must seek optimism over pessimism. The languages classroom must be vibrant, rich in target language and culture. Fostering this type of atmosphere within the classroom will inevitably lead to pupils learning outside of the classroom: school trips, role-plays, YouTube videos and whole-school European day of language events. The international friends, the music, the ability to watch foreign films without subtitles. In focussing on the fun, the progress will come. Learning another language at school is not merely about attaining a GCSE. It is about developing a skill, a way for pupils to enrich their cultural capital and view the world in an inclusive light. If necessity is the mother of adaptation, we have to adapt now!
David is a Head of Languages in a Bristol academy where he teaches Spanish.
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